The Altar of the Dead Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Fifty-five-year-old George Stransom is obsessed with observing the anniversary of his fiancee Mary Antrim’s death, a fact that leads him to expand his commemorative pantheon to include all the other departed friends who live on in his memory. Imbued from an early age with what he terms “the religion of the Dead,” he decides to provide a material sign of his remembrance in the form of a private altar in a church, which he endows on the condition that he be allowed to stipulate the number of candles to be lit there.

Stransom, after a time of worshiping privately at his altar, notices that a lady somewhat younger than he has been as frequent a worshiper at his altar as he. One day he notices her at a concert and inquires if she recognizes him, which she does. They strike up a friendship subsequently, although Stransom, in his reserve, takes considerable time even to learn her name. She lives with an elderly aunt, who acts as an obstacle to their further intimacy until her death, after which the young lady invites Stransom to her lodgings. On this occasion, in showing Stransom her room, it is brought out that the young lady was the lover of Acton Hague, and it is to his memory that she has been devoted in her observances at Stransom’s altar. More powerfully than the deceased had in life, the ghost of Acton Hague rises up between Stransom and the lady and separates them for an extended period. This gulf is fixed between them because of Stransom’s hatred of Hague (who injured him in a way that is never specified) and the lady’s refusal to abandon the memory of her lover.

Separated for many months, the pious couple are reunited finally when Stransom journeys to his altar to complete the array of lighted candles that lacks but one more for perfect symmetry. Drawn by some mysterious instinct, the young lady discovers Stransom at the altar, now committed to adding a final candle to the group. The young lady believes at first that the addition is to be the memorial to Acton Hague that she had demanded of him, but she discovers her error on realizing that the final candle is to light the memory of Stransom’s own death, which occurs as the story closes.